April 29, 2014

Building Community: A Recipe for a Successful Yoga Retreat. ~ Lynann Politte

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“Every human activity can be put at the service of the divine and of love. We should all exercise our gift to build community.”  ~ Jean Vanier

I own a home in a Co-Housing group in a rural island off the coast of Seattle. We share a common house, frequently eat meals together and make decisions about our land. It does not always come easy or natural, but for me it’s essential.

It helps satiate my own desire, and what I believe to be a shared human desire, to be connected and to be a part of a community.

This, I realize, is my own way of creating community.

We yogis have an incredible and growing community in yoga. Within neighborhoods, and across cities and countries, yoga unites us. Yoga studios have become the local pub, but instead of getting a beer, we spend Happy Hour on our mats.

Yoga retreats are mini-experiences of cohousing; everyone resides near each other, share daily (fun and transformational) experiences, eats meals together, make decisions collectively, and find moments to support each other. All the ingredients for an incredible community are there: like-minded people, a shared purpose and our proximity.

As we all know though, having all the ingredients for a dish does not guarantee a successful meal. 

I had a deep-rooted desire to create and understand the dynamics of successful communities, and on a recent retreat to Yosemite with San Francisco teacher Pete Guinosso, it got me thinking—the dynamics of a retreat community are fundamental to the individual and group experience, so what are the factors that make or break it?

What is the recipe for a cooperative community?  

In my experience in Yosemite, some of us knew each other and some didn’t, but we were all there for yoga, Yosemite and Pete—some common threads. Over the course of five short days of yoga under the open sky though, we formed an amazingly close bond.

I admired the willingness of everyone to connect on such a deep level. I loved how comfortable I felt with what could be considered a group of strangers, and I respected Pete’s ability to hold the container for such an experience. 

What I learned from the experience, and from Pete, was that the recipe for creating community, yoga retreat-style, really boiled down to fostering positive relationships within and between individuals. And what lends itself to strong relationships?

Here’s the recipe: 

Safety: If people are safe they are open, grounded, authentic and ready to connect. What happens when you don’t feel safe? You close up; you spend your energy watching, waiting, anticipating, protecting and shielding. Creating a safe physical environment and social-spiritual space is key to creating a successful retreat.

Pete did this in Yosemite by started our retreat with an opening circle, a time where each of us was instructed to tell the rest of the group about ourselves and to actively listen to others.  It was profoundly opening for the entire group, breaking the ice right off the bat, but also creating a space in the group for each of us where we were accepted for who we are. 

Compassionate & Clear Communication: Everyone wants to be heard. This means each individual has to be both a good communicator—compassionate and clear—and a good listener.

Clear communication is a form of integrity in the group. It asks that each person be clear in their thinking and expression, often needing time to ground themselves to figure out what it is they actually want to express. From this clarity, respectful and true communication can be executed.

Individuals can speak from their hearts, not from presumptions or triggers.

Respect within a group grows when individuals are able to clearly communicate their needs to the group, realizing that their active attention and listening to the needs of others is a necessity. If you want your truth to be heard, you must listen and be open to the truths of others. 

Win-win-win: Navigating personal relationships with the intent to work it out so all people have their needs met, gives us the opportunity to explore options. Options take us out of the ‘box’ with new ideas on how to create situations where everyone wins.

It is a delicate balance to offer flexibility and still maintain cohesiveness in a retreat. However, a retreat that provides options for various needs gives each person the opportunity to enjoy the experience more.

Make space for everyone to get something out of their participation and they will feel like a “winner” without sacrificing the experience of others. This could be as simple as creating options within the flow of a yoga class, or more complex in the way your daily schedule is designed to accommodate different desires.

Pete fostered this cooperative space by giving us the free time we needed throughout the day to explore on our own, and by offering hikes with different intensity levels,  and soaking and meditative activities. 

Manage conflict with grace: Different opinions and conflicts arise, no doubt. How these are addressed is key to maintaining community bonds. Lashing out in response to irritation only inspires others to do the same, and poor conflict management can rip the fabric of a strong loyal community.

Lay out some ground rules at the beginning of your retreat and establish guidelines on conflict management. Have a point person for where people can go with their concerns. If you have someone on the trip skilled in conflict resolution or group dynamics, all the better.

Conflicts must be handled, not ignored, and the parties involved must be heard and treated with respect.

Remind people in the community not to voice conflict behind one another’s backs, to allow those involved in the conflict to voice their feelings and to remember the importance of clear and active communication in order to find resolution. Being open, being kind and being accepting of one another’s faults will help create a sturdy foundation to your community. 

Did we have a conflict at the retreat? Yes. Was it handled swiftly, privately, and with respect? Yes. And did this person become a fun, participating member of the retreat? Yes.

This recipe will cook up strong community relationships on your next yoga retreat, but it’s also a recipe for successful community in your day-to-day life on and off the mat. Apply these principles to your relationship with your self, with your family and friends, co-workers, fellow yogis and neighbors.

No community will be perfect, but we can certainly take the steps to foster positive community experiences in our lives and the lives of others daily. 

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Apprentice Editor: Jessica Sandhu/Editor: Rachel Nussbaum

Photo: Flickr

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